"No Effects" Studies

Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Education Week's got this article out about randomized trials producing "no effects." According to the article, these null findings are raising eyebrows and "prompting researchers, product developers, and other experts to question the design of the studies, whether the methodology they use is suited to the messy real world of education, and whether the projects are worth the cost, which has run as high as $14.4 million in the case of one such study."

Wow, is that ever a disappointing reaction. Here's why:

1. We should be psyched, not upset, that studies with null effects are being released. That is not always the case. Publication bias, anyone? I've often thought that studies demonstrating null effects need to be publicized even more widely than those that find positive or negative impacts. Too many places out there are at the behest of funders, and can't release null findings. Too many assistant professors don't get tenure because they "didn't find anything." Are you kidding me? If it's a current practice and you learn it doesn't produce any effects, either way, it needs to be out there. We should learn as much from null findings and "worst practices" as we do from "statistically significant" impacts and "best practices."

2. Saying that experimentation isn't suited to the "messy real world" is a cop out. It lumps many different kinds of experiments into one category-- the good, the bad, and the ugly. Field experiments, lab settings, cluster-randomized trials with volunteer districts, and student-level randomized experiments with participants selected via administrative data-- these are very different animals. Each approach has a differential potential for generalizable results (external validity) and varying levels of challenges to internal validity as well. I'll grant you, experiments that rely on volunteer samples probably can't help us much in education-- since in real life programs aren't applied to students, families or schools who volunteer--they apply to everyone. This is especially a problem when we try interventions to close achievement gaps-- African-Americans who volunteer for studies are very, very different from those who do not (Tuskegee anyone?).

3. Doing experiments well costs a LOT of money. Putting trials on tight budgets helps to ensure they aren't run well--PIs cannot build the kinds of relationships that promote treatment fidelity, cannot collect high-quality data, and cannot get inside the black box of mechanisms--and instead are stuck simply estimating average treatment effects. No drug works for everyone, and no drug works in the exact same way for everyone-- the medical community knows this, and uses larger samples to make identifying differential and heterogeneous effects possible. When is Education going to catch up?

4. One thing I do agree with this article on. The model IES is using needs some revisions. I heard William T. Grant president Bob Granger give a great talk at SREE recently, where he made the point that the usual 'try small things then scale them up' model isn't going anywhere fast. We need to know how current policies work as currently implemented-- at scale. Go after that, spend what's necessary to conduct experiments with higher internal AND external validity, and support researchers to do this who reject old models and try new things. I promise you, we'll get somewhere.

UPDATE: Higher Ed Cop Out #1

Monday, March 30, 2009
It's a trend! According to the New York Times: "Facing fallen endowments and needier students, many colleges are looking more favorably on wealthier applicants as they make their admissions decisions this year."

Says Morty Shapiro, "There's going to be a cascading of talented lower-income kids down the social hierarchy of American higher education, and some cascading up of affluent kids."

Darn straight-- remember cop out #1? Need-Sensitive Admissions. Lovely.

UPDATE: Madison Initiative (redux)

Students and families are continuing to weigh in. Here's the latest from Madison-land...

In "Tuition increase simply robbery" James Farrell (class of 1988) writes: "...The proposed tuition surcharge would be better named ...“Martin’s Increase in Undergraduate Debt.” As a parent of a non-resident student, and as a UW alumnus, let me comment on the chancellor’s talent for doublespeak.... although I have been a regular donor to the University since the year of my graduation, I will for the next decade or more consider Chancellor Martin’s “surcharge” as my contribution to the annual fund."

In response to "Taking the Initiative," a generally positive Badger Herald editorial, several students write anonymously:

"According to this, the majority of students will be affected by this tuition hike to bring more faculty and enhance the undergraduate experience. The reality of it is the people hired with this money will do minimal teaching, optimal research, and then the undergrads are out $2500 each year for something that really doesn't affect them. No thanks."

"Maybe you come from a rich family, but many of us don't. Even for families making just over $80,000, this initiative is going to be difficult to pay. Stop judging other people's problems. You just make yourself sound like a spoiled little rich kid. You're probably one of those people who own like 20 pairs of Ugg boots and Northfaces. Honestly, I have no idea who would want to pay over $30,000 to come here from out of state. That's a significant increase and unfair to people who came here thinking tuition would remain significantly less. I would never go to a public university in another state for $32,000 a year!"

Duncan Appoints College Access Assistant

Alexander Russo reports on This Week in Education ("USDE: "Another Windy City Pick For Duncan") that Greg Darnieder, former head of the Chicago Public Schools' Department of College and Career Preparation, has joined U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's team as a special assistant for college access.

Sara praised Greg in an earlier Optimist post ("Yeah It's Arne Duncan!").

Despite his title, I assume and hope that he'll be working on college success as well--not just access.

"Duncan's Team"
"From High School To The Future: Chicago Leads The Way"

Sara adds:


This is a great move. I've seen Greg in action numerous times, and have to tell you, this guy has got the goods. First of all, he understands how to get people to work together on behalf of kids. Second, he gets incentives, both carrots and sticks. Third, he gets research-- and he's not scared of data. Fourth, he asks thoughtful, relevant questions. And fifth, he's got what it takes. Yee-haw, Duncan just made my day!

Duncan To Sanford: "Stuff It"

Friday, March 27, 2009
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan vowed to find a way (as reported in USA Today) to get education-related stimulus dollars to South Carolina despite Governor Mark Sanford's perilous, politicized stance against accepting it.

"Let me be clear: We are going to take care of children in South Carolina," Duncan said Thursday in a Newsmaker session with USA TODAY.

The Obama administration last week rejected Sanford's bid to funnel $700 million in education-related federal stimulus funding to reducing South Carolina's debt. He later said he wouldn't apply for the $700 million.

Accepting the education money would "put our state even further into an unconscionable level of debt," Sanford said in a statement. The governor believes that failure to pay down the construction debt would worsen the state's overall debt load.

Sanford is one of a small group of Republican governors — Louisiana's Bobby Jindal and Alaska's Sarah Palin are others — who may reject or consider saying no to a portion of the stimulus money.

It seems to me that South Carolina's pre-existing debt is a creation of that state's policies and not the fault of a federal stimulus law just passed last month. In an Education Week story on this same topic, Sanford's spokesperson was quoted as saying that "the biggest problem remains borrowing money that future generations will have to repay." Listen, the federal government's been borrowing money for years. If this is truly a principled stance against borrowed federal monies -- and not politics as usual (a thumb in the eye of a Democratic president or testing the waters for a presidential run) -- then the Governor should reject all federal monies that could be said to be borrowed. For example, reject all federal highway money and South Carolina can go back to the days of horse and buggies.

Ain't gonna happen because there's no principle here, just politics.

BACKGROUND: "Dumb And Dumber"


UPDATE: The New York Times weighs in ("Courting Disaster in South Carolina") on Sanford's stance in a Monday editorial.

Now that Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina has polished his credentials with the Republican right by recklessly rejecting $700 million in federal education stimulus money, we keep hoping he will change his mind and put the needs of his recession-ravaged state ahead of his political ambitions.

Evolution Lives

On a tie vote, it appears that the creationists on the Texas State Board of Education failed in their attempt to prevent the teaching of evolution in science classes. However, they managed to make some mischief, requiring science teachers to evaluate critically a variety of scientific principles like the Big Bang, for example.

Here is additional background, as reported here on Wednesday ("Will Darwin Take It On The Chin In Texas?").

The New York Times ("Defeat And Some Success For Texas Evolution Foes") and the Dallas Morning News ("Split vote upholds Texas education board ruling to ax evolution 'strengths and weaknesses' rule") have the full story.

Board members deadlocked 7-7 on a motion to restore a longtime curriculum rule that "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories – notably Charles Darwin's theory of evolution – be covered in science classes and textbooks for those subjects.

The tie vote upheld a preliminary decision by the board in January to delete the strengths-and-weaknesses rule in the new curriculum standards for science classes that will be in force for the next decade. That decision, if finalized in a last vote today, changes 20 years of Texas education policy.

Because the standards spell out what must be covered in textbooks, science educators and publishers have been monitoring the Texas debate closely. As one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation, Texas influences what is sold in other states.

Now if they could only agree on how old the earth really is.

UPDATE: Madison Initiative

Thursday, March 26, 2009
UW-Madison's chancellor is in the midst of spreading the good word about her Initiative for Undergraduates. On the surface, much of the campus seems supportive.

In private, it's a different story. I received nearly 30 unsolicited emails from students today. Here, is an excerpt from one:

"I went to the Madison Initiative Forum tonight...[The Chancellor] said early in the forum that students should claim independence from their parents (to get financial aid)-- not even considering the tax implications for the parents. One of the administrators walking around during the small groups part heard my group talking about that and got her to correct her statement....There weren't many students present and most of them seemed opposed to the plan. Engineering students were especially vocal on account of their already having to pay differential tuition and all of the faculty benefits going to Letters & Sciences. A lot of people were also skeptical that their additional funds would go to hiring new faculty that would actually interact with undergrads. I came away from the Forum less impressed with the proposal..."

I think the voices of students are quite important in this discussion, and I urge those for the program and those against to make their opinions heard. This is, after all, one of the last remaining universities of the people.

Keeping you posted....

BACKGROUND: "Sifting and Winnowing"

UPDATE: Milwaukee Voucher Program

Dr. Howard Fuller -- a Milwaukee-based national school voucher advocate, long-time champion of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent -- today announced his support for greater regulation of voucher schools, as proposed by Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle in his biennial state budget. (Nice summary of the Governor's proposal at Blogging MPS.)

I am glad to see that Governor Doyle has not backed away from the proposals he made for greater accountability in the voucher program back in 2005 and 2006--specifically, higher standards for voucher-school teachers and public reporting of standardized tests for each voucher school. With Democrats now in control of both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature, the path has been cleared for needed reforms to the program -- reforms in the best interest of students and parents.

Read more in Alan Borsuk's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story ("Key voucher advocate says more regulation, standards for program needed"). Excerpts below:

Howard Fuller, the former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent who is now a central figure nationally in advocating for school choice, said he wants school leaders to join with Gov. Jim Doyle, legislative leaders and others in working out new ways to assure that students of all kinds have quality teachers in quality schools.

"We can't just keep wringing our hands about these terrible schools," Fuller said. "We have a moral responsibility to our children to not accept that."

Fuller was reacting both to a new set of studies of the voucher program and to a dramatically different situation for voucher supporters in the state Capitol.

In Madison, with both houses of the Legislature now controlled by Democrats, prospects are strong for passage of legislation pushed by critics of the voucher program that would impose stricter rules on many fronts. Such proposal have not passed in recent years because Republicans controlled at least one house of the Legislature and voucher leaders - including Fuller - resisted many of them.

In his state budget, Doyle called for changes in the voucher program, including requiring teachers to meet higher qualification standards and requiring the voucher schools to give standardized tests and report the results publicly.

"Many of the provisions he has in there are sensible and reasonable, and we ought to do this," Fuller said.

Reacting to specific proposals made by Doyle, Fuller said, "Who can argue with the need to have standards for how kids move from one grade level to another?" He said the same was true for such ideas as setting stricter standards for graduation, annual hours of instruction and handling of student records in a standardized way that allows such things as school transfers to be made smoothly.

The state Department of Public Instruction released a list recently of 57 new applicants to participate in the voucher program next fall. Most of them were people who have not run schools before and appeared to have little structure or backing for their plans.

"We've got to figure out a way to stop people (such as those) from starting schools in the first place," Fuller said. "Who in their right mind would argue that we don't have to do something like that?"

State law currently requires voucher school teachers to have high school diplomas. Fuller said, "Who could argue with a notion of a bachelor's degree for teachers?"

What about the private schools giving state standardized tests and making the results public?

"We clearly have to do that," he said.

Evaluation of Milwaukee Voucher Program

Alan Borsuk of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writes ("Study finds results of MPS and voucher schools are similar") about the first report from a long-awaited and on-going evaluation of the Milwaukee school voucher program by the School Choice Demonstration Project.
The first research since the mid-1990s comparing the academic progress of students in Milwaukee's precedent-setting private school voucher program with students in Milwaukee Public Schools shows no major differences in success between the two groups.

Summarizing a comparison of how matched groups of voucher and MPS students did across two years of tests, the researchers wrote:

"The primary finding in all of these comparisons is that there is no overall statistically significant difference between MPCP (voucher) and MPS student achievement growth in either math or reading one year after they were carefully matched to each other."

When I worked in Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle's Office, we worked hard to bring greater accountability to the $129 million taxpayer-funded Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. The 2006 compromise ("Governor and Speaker Gard Announce Deal on School Choice, Accountability, and Small Class Size Funding") -- made necessary because of the then-Republican Assembly Speaker (who had close ties to local and national voucher school lobbyists) -- wasn't perfect or as strong it might otherwise have been, but it was a step forward.

The push for greater accountability was precipitated over concerns about student learning (such as reported by Rethinking Schools in 2005) and widespread fraud and abuse (such as this and this) that seemed to be rampant within many start-up schools financed solely by the public subsidies available through the voucher program. This national evaluation -- along with stronger financial reporting requirements, independent accreditation, and participation in standardized testing -- was one piece of that accountability rubric passed into law. (Here is a link to a summary of the Act (2005 Wisconsin Act 125).

Other elements of accountability discussed back in 2005 and 2006, and still under discussion within the Wisconsin education policy community, include certification of educators in the voucher schools and a reporting of school-by-school assessment results. The argument for teacher certification was made to ensure a minimum standard of teacher quality based on evidence that teachers in voucher schools were not required to have graduated from college. In addition, it was felt that in order for parents to make informed choices for their kids academic information on the voucher schools needed to be available the same way it is for schools within Milwaukee's public system.

After all, taxpayer money -- from the state of Wisonsin and from the city of Milwaukee -- finances this program. And these kids deserve the best education possible. Certainly, they deserve some assurance of basic quality.

For readers who can't get enough of this issue, check out these links for further background about this issue:

Education Optimists: "School Vouchers Are No Silver Bullet"
Eduwonk: "Vouching Toward Gomorrah"
Quick & The Ed: "I Should Know Better..."
Fordham Institute: What's The Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs
David Figlio & Cecelia Rouse: Do Accountability and Voucher Threats Improve Low-Performing Schools?

Time to Get Creative

One of the hardest things about being a scholar of higher education is working at a university. Inevitably we're seen as either pandering to the administration, or in direct warfare with it. What I can't understand is why leaders at universities don't identify and embrace their colleagues as (nearly) free sources of expertise. Those of us who study higher ed are generally a deeply committed body of folks who love nothing more than dreaming up creative ways to help colleges achieve.

Yet so often we're left out in the cold, only brought in at the last minute when it's time to give us a warning and tell us to shut up. Which, of course, makes us less effective, hurt, and generally pissed off.

My last two days were extremely long ones, extremely fraught ones...and today will be no exception. My task: figure out, in short time, highly nuanced and effective ways to increase the amount of need-based aid UW has WITHOUT promoting economic inequality. I'm glad I have a pool of talented colleagues with which to confer. Now only if I'd had more time....

Sifting and Winnowing

Wednesday, March 25, 2009
UW-Madison Chancellor Carolyn "Biddy" Martin’s Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, pitched as a way to improve both the quality and affordability of undergraduate education, is a deceptively appealing policy. On its face, it appears to be an efficient way to increase UW’s resources while decreasing inequities in access. It does this by taking a substantial step towards a “high-tuition/high aid” model that asks middle and upper-income students and families to pay more of the University’s costs.

In practice, this policy sacrifices equity for excellence, and puts one of the nation’s premier public flagship campuses in jeopardy. Make no mistake: it passes the burden of funding public higher education onto the shoulders of working families and students—in the midst of a financial crisis. While purporting to “hold harmless” lower-income students with increases in financial aid, it employs a poorly justified income cutoff that will make successful implementation near impossible. By raising the sticker price in the midst of a recession it is likely to have trickle down effects that effectively steer the low-income students elsewhere, while increasing the resource disparities between Madison and other System campuses. In effect, this initiative will make UW-Madison both more desirable and less accessible.

To demonstrate her sincere commitment to UW’s undergraduates, Chancellor Martin should move quickly to ensure that all consequences of her proposal—intended and unintended—will be carefully measured and considered. Under President Obama’s leadership the nation has moved toward an era of greater transparency, accountability, and data-driven decision-making. Part of Martin’s commitment to undergraduates should be to do the same.

Will Darwin Take It On The Chin in Texas?

The Washington Post editorial page ('Strengths and Weaknesses') weighs in on the creationism debate in the Lone Star State.
Starting today, the state's board of education will consider whether the phrase "strengths and weaknesses" should remain deleted from the state's science standards. Debating strengths and weaknesses of various scientific theories might sound reasonable until you learn that those are supportive buzzwords for people who doubt evolution and want creationism taught in the classroom.

The force behind restoring the "strengths and weaknesses" language, which was stripped from the science standards in January after two decades, is Don McLeroy. He's the chairman of the State Board of Education. He is also a "young earth creationist" who believes the Earth was created by God no more than 10,000 years ago. Never mind plenty of scientific evidence that the planet has been around for a few billion years. The scary thing is that what's happening in Texas is by no means isolated.

So, in a state of 24 million people, this Mr. McLeroy is the best candidate that Republican Governor Rick Perry could find for the job of chair of the State Board of Education? Scary. Purposefully scary, I'll bet.

For more background, see here (6/3/08), here (7/21/08), here (1/22/09), and here (1/23/09).

Higher Ed Cop Out #5: Cheerleading

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Sitting at my desk preparing for tomorrow's class, and then just like a little ray of sunshine the Chronicle's afternoon update arrives. Hope springs eternal. To wit:

"College-Preparedness Campaign Shows Good Results"

The news? Kids across the country reported on a survey that they've seen the KnowHow2Go ad campaign, and those kids also report that they've talked to adults about attending college.

According to the president of the American Council of Education this means, "The campaign message is taking hold and students are taking action.”

Ok, then. Um, where to start?

How about:

1. All empirical evidence indicates that ambitions for college are rising.
2. There's little empirical evidence to suggest that failing to talk to adults is part of the reason why more poor kids don't attend college.
3. The survey didn't ask kids if talking to adults was the DIRECT result of seeing a KnowHow2Go ad.
4. The survey was only taken by kids who like to take surveys about college-going.

In a nutshell, while it's clear that several organizations are spending loads of money on KnowHow2Go, this hardly constitutes evidence of "success" or "impact."

If we really want to make sure that our efforts add value by truly helping kids, we must let go of such cheerleading and instead commission rigorous evaluations designed to help us ensure our programs have genuine impact, dollar for dollar.

Ones to Watch

Monday, March 23, 2009
I tried out a new conference last week-- the American Education Finance Association annual meeting, which was held in Nashville. And while it took awhile to get used to being around so many economists (I'm kidding, just kidding...), I was struck by all of the incredibly bright folks around me, and how many of the junior ones I'd never heard of. It really is so exciting to see where education scholarship is going, with all of these cool 30/40 year-olds running around now!

So I thought I'd highlight a few, in the hopes that others of you will keep an eye on their work too. Here we go, in no particular order:

1. Peter Hinrichs-- Assistant Professor, Georgetown Public Policy Institute. Peter gave the best presentation I heard all week, on a very cool paper about the effects of affirmative action bans. He's clearly got his eye on what matters and how to make snazzy little econometric tricks useful.

2. Tammy Kolbe-- Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, FSU. Tammy is a former Abt gal and AERA/IES postdoc, and she's bringing lots of real world experience to her teaching and research. This woman is a treasure trove of useful information, let me tell you!

3. Judy Scott-Clayton-- Soon-to-be Assistant Professor, Teachers College. I can't tell you how psyched I am that the Community College Research Center is getting a scholar with the chops and pizzaz of Judy. She's done a nifty dissertation on West Virginia that highlights and lowlights all that is merit aid. Plus, you gotta give a girl props for being this insanely bright and productive while raising a toddler.

Next year AEFA will be in Richmond VA-- I know I'll be there, and hope you will too!

Axe-Wielding Policymakers

In tight fiscal times such as these, policymakers can choose to make needed cuts with a scalpel or an axe. The Missouri House apparently has decided to chop away at certain programs indiscriminately.

According to this article from the Southeast Missourian, in the version of the state budget passed by the House, funding (currently $15 million) for teacher professional development and mentoring would not just be trimmed -- but completely ELIMINATED.

Want to know more about why teacher development is important? Check out these resources:

Musical Elective Of The Week

Saturday, March 21, 2009
The Musical Elective Of The Week is Rhett Miller.

With Rhett, you get two-for-one. Not only is he the front man for the alt-country Old 97s, but he is also an accomplished solo artist. As a solo artist, he has three albums under his belt -- most notably, 2002's The Instigator and 2006's The Believer. He also released the album Mythologies in 1989, prior to joining the Old 97s. Rhett will release his fourth solo album, Rhett Miller, on June 9, 2009.

The Instigator may be the perfect rock record, chock-full of potential singles. And Rhett's live shows are often similar. He delivers pop hook after pop hook, driving rock 'n' roll, and playful stylin' on the ghee-tar. In fact, in 2003, when he opened for Neil Finn's U.S. tour dates, that was just about a perfect double-bill in my book.

The Instigator includes a slew of instantly memorable tracks, including "Our Love," "This Is What I Do," "Come Around," "Point Shirley," "Four-Eyed Girl", and "The El." The Believer offers up "Singular Girl," "My Valentine," "Brand New Way," "Fireflies" (a duet with Rachel Yamagata), and a remake of the fabulous 97s song "Question" (the original of which we included on the CD that we gave as a gift to all who attended our wedding in 2005).

And I forgive him for being a Dallas Cowboys fan, the same way I forgive my wife--even though she has no connection to Texas at all.

Check out Rhett's web site for more.
I could hide it in the attic I could bury it in static
I could only put it out in Japan
I could tape my mouth closed I could take another dose
I am dancing as fast as I can
This is what I do for a living this is what I do

--"This Is What I Do," The Instigator (2002)
Click here for past Musical Electives of The Week.

Photo courtesy of www.eachnotesecure.com.

Stand For Children

Friday, March 20, 2009
Child advocacy groups are pretty predictable creatures. They're all about childhood immunization, child health care, and early childhood education, right? Well, usually.

Not these folks.

Stand for Children is a national 501(c)(3) based in Portland, Oregon. It is a self-proclaimed "citizen voice for children" that torpedoes the traditional concept of what a child advocacy group is and can do. Stand "builds effective local and statewide networks of grassroots advocates" and focuses on "securing adequate funding for public schools and reforming education policies and practices to help children thrive academically, giving them the opportunities they need to become successful, productive citizens."

Stand has taken on an aggressive reform agenda focused on k-12 education and teacher quality, specifically. Stand was instrumental -- along with the Chalkboard Project -- in passing a visionary teacher mentoring law (HB2574) in the state of Oregon in 2007. (For more, read an article by Stand's Dana Hepper on page 7 of the New Teacher Center's Reflections newsletter.) They've achieved many other successes, too.

Stand has state affiliates in Massachusetts, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington state -- and soon in Colorado as well. It is led by Jonah Edelman, co-founder and executive director.

Check them out.

Ideas Worth Exploring

Thursday, March 19, 2009
You'll have to forgive me for not writing a nice post in complete sentences this morning, as I'm running/flying between Santa Monica and Nashville with hardly any time to spare. But since the policy conversations in Washington these days feel friendly to good ideas, I want to throw some out there -- and see what kind of support we can generate. I'm not claiming any of these are uniquely mine, just that I think they're worth researching further and potentially backing as policies. Here we go:

1. Tie loan forgiveness to college completion. Create incentives for students to choose a loan over long hours of work while in college, and give them a reason to be sure and finish a credential.

2. Forgive student loans as a way to stimulate the economy. Instead of sending people checks, let them keep the money they already have.

3. Do NOT tie need-based grant aid to college completion.

4. Start teacher induction/mentoring programs for junior professors. If we know new k-12 teachers need help getting started teaching kids, why would we think new assistant professors are prepared and able to teach 18-year-olds?

5. Make one during or post-college service option (e.g. for loan forgiveness) serving as a 'college coach' in a high-poverty high school.

Dumb and Dumber

Friday, March 13, 2009
South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford's decision on the stimulus dollars is dumb.
The United States faces a Zimbabwe-style economic collapse if it keeps "spending a bunch of money we don't have," South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford said Wednesday.

But with South Carolina's unemployment rate now the second-highest in the country, state lawmakers will attempt to override Sanford and take the $700 million if he turns it down, Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer said.

"They will use the total economic stimulus to stimulate the economy, jump-start it, so we can get out of the ditch we are in as a state and as a nation," Bauer, a fellow Republican, said in a written statement Wednesday.

But, as the parent of a two-year-old, this incident at an Arkansas day care facility is even dumber and completely inexcusable.
Ten children at a day care center drank windshield wiper fluid after a staffer served it from a container mistaken for Kool-Aid and placed in a refrigerator, authorities said Friday. The day care owner surrendered her state license Friday.

Doctors estimate the children, ages 2 to 7, drank about an ounce of the blue fluid late Thursday afternoon before realizing it tasted wrong, said Laura James, a pediatric pharmacologist and toxicologist at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock.

Only one child remained hospitalized Friday morning, after blood samples showed "measurable levels" of methanol, a highly toxic alcohol that can induce comas and cause blindness, officials said. The day care also provided the fluid for testing.

I hope the child hospitalized suffers no long-term consequences as a result of this idiocy.


UPDATE: Thankfully, all of the children appear to be OK.

Stupid Stuff from Skoolboy

Kudos to Dr. Aaron Pallas (AKA skoolboy) for his terrific post ("It's The Stupid System") today on the Gotham Schools blog.

He takes New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton to task for their Huffinington Post piece which implies that there is an easy achievement-gap fix -- namely value-added assessment and merit pay alone.
As usual, skoolboy’s main concern is that Klein and Sharpton are talking about effective teachers without ever once discussing what it is that they do. Reward the good ones, get rid of the bad ones, it’s all about sorting teachers–and never about actually improving instruction. Let’s suppose that Klein, Sharpton and others are right–that it is difficult to tell which teachers are going to be highly successful when they start teaching, because the instruction teachers receive prior to taking over a classroom can’t fully prepare them for the challenges of an urban classroom. Why not focus on professional development, and assisting novice teachers in learning effective practices on the job? How does giving effective teachers merit pay and dismissing poor performers actually improve anyone’s practice?
I wholeheartedly agree with Pallas's take on this. I said as much in my post on Monday ("Measurement Is Not Destiny"). The human capital challenge can't just be about rewarding the best and dismissing the worst. It must also be about a focused effort to make the vast majority of educators more effective. That will require a comprehensive effort, including high-quality, job-embedded, sustained professional development and robust induction support.

UPDATE: Corey Bunje Bower at Ed Policy Thoughts has some thoughts on the Klein/Sharpton piece as well.

Wacky Wednesday (Yes, I Know It's Thursday)

Thursday, March 12, 2009
Wacky Wednesday. That's what the locals call Wednesday afternoons when teachers in Wyoming's Laramie County School District 2 send the kids home early in order to participate in professional development (Casper Star-Tribune: "Teacher learning debated in Wyo").
Judging from a new report by the National Staff Development Council, though, the district's elementary teachers have been out front in the United States with their in-school training. According to the report, American teachers spend about 80 percent of their time teaching and only about 20 percent on those other things that teachers do -- planning lessons, talking to other teachers and improving their skills. Seldom do they engage in as much at-school training as the teachers in Laramie County 2.

In most European and Asian countries, meanwhile, teacher training is commonly part of the regular school week. Teachers in those countries typically spend less than half of their working time teaching, according to the council's report. Yet the students in many of those countries, who spend less time in class than American students, outscore their American counterparts in math and science, the report said.
Now, given that so much professional development in American schools is of the spray 'n' pray, one-size-fits-all variety, skepticism is most certainly warranted. But given this evidence that the Laramie district's approach to PD was of much higher quality, it is unfortunate that the local school board took the easy route out of this PR challenge by eliminating this sanctioned time for educators.

It seems to me that the middle ground to this false choice -- between eliminating time during the school day for teacher to participate in professional development or cutting learning time for kids -- would be to lengthen the school day -- or the school year. It's an idea that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has discussed. A school superintendent in Mississippi has even proposed year-round schools.

The National Staff Development Council report can be found here.

And here is some good analysis here on the length of the school year from Kevin Carey at the Quick and The Ed.

Obama Offers Details on Education Plan

Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The Chicago Tribune is reporting that President Obama will unveil his education plan today. Reportedly, it will address performance pay for teachers, higher academic standards, dropout prevention programs, and direct aid for college students. He will not propose any legislation nor will he address the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind) at this time.
UPDATE: From The New York Times Caucus Blog:

President Obama said Tuesday that the nation must overhaul its education system and dramatically decrease the drop-out rate among students to remain competitive in the global economy.

In an address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Obama issued a challenge to states to increase the quality of reading and math instruction to keep American students at pace with other countries....

The president challenged teachers unions, renewing his support for a merit-based system of payment.... “It means treating teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable,” Mr. Obama said. “New teachers will be mentored by experienced ones. Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools.”

Measurement Is Not Destiny

Monday, March 9, 2009
Stephen Sawchuk has written an excellent cover story ("Stimulus Bill Spurs Focus on Teachers") in this week's edition of Education Week. It discusses the federal stimulus legislation which directs states to abide by the equitable teacher distribution provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act -- as well as to improve teacher effectiveness -- in exchange for state stabilization funds and the opportunity to apply for competitive grants as part of Secretary Duncan's "Race To The Top Fund."

With regard to teacher effectiveness, there's just one little problem. There's no definition in federal law -- let alone in state laws -- about what that actually means. From Education Week:

Several states, and some districts, now endorse performance-based teacher evaluations that define good teaching, determine which teachers exhibit such practices, and identify those who fall short for assistance. Others are reorienting professional development toward sustained school-based approaches that researchers say are more likely to change teacher behavior and improve student achievement than “one shot” workshops.

Some efforts to improve teacher effectiveness have proved politically challenging. The federal Teacher Incentive Fund, a performance-pay program, has promoted interest in using test scores to estimate teacher effectiveness. That approach has generally not been favored by teachers’ unions. The tif program received an additional $200 million in the stimulus.

Additionally, a limited number of states have the ability to match teacher records to student data, and even those with the technical capacity have not always used their data to estimate teacher effectiveness. The unions fear such links could ultimately be used to establish punitive policies, and they have successfully lobbied legislators to curb the use of “teacher effect” data in some states. ("Growth Data for Teachers Under Review," Oct. 12, 2008.)

But the possibilities of “value added” are enticing to policymakers. Officials in Tennessee, the lone state that has incorporated teacher-effect data into personnel decisions, are awaiting new data that will reveal whether efforts to attract effective teachers to the most challenged schools have improved results, said Julie McCargar, the state director of federal programs.

This is a huge issue – and it will be interesting to see if the U.S. Department of Education focuses its regulatory definition and its expectations of states – like so many others – simply on measuring and identifying and perhaps rewarding effective teachers. The logical and more purposeful next step, of course, is to look at what behaviors, characteristics, or knowledge make certain educators more effective and then determine how to scale up approaches to initial training or on-going professional development programs to help make the vast majority of teacher candidates, beginning teachers and veteran teachers better. I have no insider knowledge about the Department's thinking around all this, but I’m always astonished at the wealth of policymakers, policy organizations, and foundations that never seem to get past square one on this topic.

Measurement is not destiny.

If all we do is use value-added metrics to determine who the best teachers are and pay them more money for being better, we will be sacrificing the quality of public education for a short-sighted reform. While more money might keep some effective educators from leaving a particular school or district, or from leaving the profession entirely, it won't do anything to make existing and future teachers a whit better.

The teacher effectiveness conversation must be about more than value-added measurement and performance pay, although it can certainly include those elements. It can't be simply about rewarding the good and getting rid of the bad. Fundamentally, it must be about a concerted human capital strategy to use existing knowledge as well as future data and research to strengthen teacher preparation, induction and professional development to improve the skills and abilities of all teachers. Hopefully, the Department's focus on teacher effectiveness will impel such an effort.

We can do better -- by learning from the best teachers and finding ways to replicate their success. Now, that would be effective.

Fixing the "Duh" Stuff

Score another one for the new U.S. Department of Education-- attention to the kinds of details that unwittingly trip many of us up, with serious consequences.

Behavioral economists such as Richard Thaler have been talking about the importance of framing "default options" such that when we just do the usual, we end up making good choices. In the financial aid context, this can mean just making sure that when we type in the intuitive address to a website, it goes where we'd expect it to. So type in "fafsa.gov" to get help on the FAFSA and "education.gov" to visit the U.S. DOE. Except until recently these sites were the wrong ones.

No longer! Thanks to the leadership of Bob Shireman, who's clearly got a handle on how students and families think and how we can make the existing system work at least a little better at next to no cost, these problems are solved. Can't wait to see what he thinks of next!

If the last administration was so smart, how come nobody bothered to do this years ago, when the issues were originally noted?

Musical Elective Of The Week

Saturday, March 7, 2009
The Musical Elective Of The Week is Keane.

In truth, I first discovered the band Keane through Pandora radio, although their song "Somewhere Only We Know" became rather ubiquitous on AAA, rock, and pop radio stations back in 2004--and since. My guess is that many of you will recognize their music, but may not really know them as a band.

Keane is one of the best and most successful Beatle-esque bands to emerge from the U.K. over the past decade. Definitely cut from the same cloth as U2, Oasis, The Smiths, and Coldplay, their sound is nonetheless unique power pop/rock delivered through crafty lyrics, powerful choruses and compelling hooks.

Keane is a three-piece band out of East Sussex, England. Keane is comprised of Tom Chaplin (vocals), Richard Hughes (drums), and Tim Rice-Oxley (chief songwriter/bass/piano). And they are major stars in their home country--and around Europe--unlike in the States.

Although Keane has been around in various forms since 1995, they did not release their first studio album until 2004--Hopes and Fears. It featured the aforementioned single "Somewhere Only We Know" as well as "Can't Stop Now" and "Bedshaped." Hopes and Fears won best album in Britain at both the Q Awards and the BRIT Awards--both much more friendly to Optimists' favorite music than our own native Grammys--and was also the second highest selling album there in 2004. They were nominated for a Grammy in the Best New Artist category in 2005 as a result of that release as well.

Following it are 2006's Under The Iron Sea (my personal favorite) and 2008's Perfect Symmetry. Under The Iron Sea birthed the memorable singles "Is It Any Wonder?" and "Crystal Ball." And the title track is a notable offering on Keane's 2008 album.

To learn more about Keane and to sample some of their music, visit their official web site.
I always thought that I knew
I'd always have the right to
Be living in the kingdom of the good and true
and so on
but now I think how I was wrong
And you were laughing along
And now I look a fool for thinking you were on, my side
-- "Is It Any Wonder?" from Under The Iron Sea (2006)
Visit here for all Musical Electives Of The Week


Thursday, March 5, 2009
Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong.

WRONG: I didn't accurately call the selection of Arne Duncan as Education Secretary. In fact, I didn't include him on my initial list at all, but eventually did come to see the light. As Bugs Bunny might say, "What a maroon!" That said, I think Duncan's gotten off to a nice start, focusing on what works in education, and prioritizing issues such as academic standards, teacher quality, and college completion.

RIGHT: I did believe correctly that President Obama would prioritize education from the get-go. And he has. Education was mentioned as one of his top three priority issues in last month's address to a joint session of Congress. As Senator, Obama showed a commitment to education issues, including the importance of quality teachers.

My prediction for today: I will not accomplish everything on my to-do list. I certainly will not have time for a round of golf.

Teacher Quality and Class Size

Wednesday, March 4, 2009
The Washington Post's Jay Mathews gets it right in his recent blog post ("Better Teachers, Not Tinier Classes, Should Be The Goal").

Research shows that teacher quality trumps class size. (See Linda Darling-Hammond and Michigan State's Education Policy Center.) The strongest evidence suggests that class size only makes a difference in the early grades. Smaller classes are political popular -- and often demanded by parents -- but what is most important is who is teaching the class, not how many students are in it.

Jan Mathews writes:

Let's pretend Fairfax County schools get a surprise $44 million from the federal stimulus package this summer. With that money, the school system could make each class, on average, two students smaller, or it could do what some high-achieving schools do: Keep class sizes large and focus instead on more energetic recruiting and training of teachers. Research indicates that a two-student reduction would make little difference. Why not see what better instruction could do?

Or, try this thought experiment: The principal says your child can be transferred to the school's best teacher, an imaginative and energetic motivator, but that will push the class's size up to 30. Would you decline the offer? I wouldn't.

Then, there is California's sobering experience (CSR Research Consortium Capstone Report, 2002) when it reduced class sizes across the board in the 1990s. Because smaller classes require more teachers, California's policy depleted the teacher pool so incredibly that many more students were being taught by unqualified, unlicensed instructors. Not the desired outcome, most certainly.

Here's some good analysis and implications for ESEA re-authorization hot off the presses, so to speak, from Teacher Beat.